The hardest working person in the news business

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Only two pieces of evidence proved that the hardest working person in journalism stopped by today: Tracks in the driveway, and a newspaper on the doorstep… or at least close to it.

Few American workers get as little recognition as the newspaper carrier, a job that — like newspapers themselves — may be disappearing. They do their work while we get our beauty sleep.

Even with a lousy economy, this is the worst and best time of the year for the carrier. There’s nothing worse than a thick Sunday newspaper and during the Christmas season, the inserts add hundreds of pounds to the carrier’s load. The Minnesota winters, of course, are a horrible time to be out on the pre-dawn streets and the unshoveled walkways.

But it’s also tip-time, or didn’t you notice the Christmas card mixed in with the ads? Occasionally there’s a note with it from your carrier. Sometimes they ask for a tip, most of the times they don’t. Send them the money.

I worked as a newspaper carrier for 10 years, up until around 2004. I usually don’t sleep very well after 3 in the morning and I decided one day I might as well get up and be productive. I delivered the Pioneer Press and Wall St. Journal and here’s what I learned that most people don’t know:

  • Carriers don’t get any days off. They have to work seven-days-a-week. With the big payday on Sunday, they don’t get weekends. Think about that! If you’re a newspaper carrier, you don’t sleep in, ever. No vacations. The Star Tribune, however, has two carriers per route, one for weekends, and one during the week. That’s a luxury.
  • Carriers get up earlier than you think. I missed a lot of T-ball games because I had to be in bed by 8 or 9 p.m., to get up at 2:30 a.m. during the week and around midnight on Sunday. Carriers assemble multiple sections into one. On Sundays, that process can take a couple of hours. The carriers are required to finish deliveries by 6 a.m. most days. Seven on Sundays.
  • Carriers pay for their own supplies. That plastic bag? The rubber band? The newspapers make carriers pay for them. It might be only a penny each, but that’s important because…
  • Carriers don’t get paid much. When I was delivering, a daily paper netted the carrier 10 cents (the penny bag represented a 10-percent drop in profit) and the Sunday paper netted 34 cents. All of the profit could be easily wiped out because…
  • Carriers are penalized for mistakes. At the St. Paul paper, a missed delivery, a wet newspaper, or a late delivery (even during snowstorms) costs the carrier $1, even though he/she only made 10 cents on the delivery, and the newspaper only charged 25 cents. So for the next 10 days, the carrier wouldn’t make any money delivering a newspaper to a particular address. On Sunday, the penalty was (and maybe still is) $3.
  • Carriers come from all walks of life. In the early ’90s, most seemed to be people doing it to make a few extra bucks. I met lawyers, journalists, and farmers. I also met single mothers who’d have a baby sleeping in a cradlette on the assembly table while she worked. Occasionally, you’d see teams of college kids working on one route who thought it would be a good idea to go party, then head straight for the newspaper depot. They usually lasted about a week. Sometimes, I’d see entire families. It always seemed sad to me that young kids were forced to put newspapers together and then deliver them; but they were. And still are.

    On one morning, a carrier in the depot had a heart attack while carrying a load of newspapers to his car. He stumbled back inside, collapsed near a door, and died. For over an hour, some supervisors grumbled that his body blocked the door.

  • You can tell a lot about people by delivering their newspaper. In Woodbury, I’d find an inordinate number of McMansions with two Lexuses parked in the driveway. Occasionally, they’d leave the garage door open. The three-car garages were filled with more “stuff” and a boat. I still wonder how many of those people are the same people who are having mortgage problems now. Those people never tipped, by the way.
  • A nice customer brightens up a dark morning, especially in the winter. I had one customer who’d leave a Thermos full of hot chocolate on cold mornings. But…
  • Most customers don’t give a rip. Carriers depend on the Christmas tips but don’t get them from most people. Marian Gaborik was on my route. He never tipped, even after his holdout years ago when he ended up making millions of dollars. After that, I just threw his paper in the driveway.

    But the little old man living in a mostly-senior-citizen complex left a nice note and $3 at the end of every month. I loved that guy and not because of his money. He died a few years ago and I felt like I lost a close friend, even though I only met him once or twice. He left me nice notes, and I’d scribble a message at the top of his morning paper each day.

    Judging by the help-wanted section these days, there aren’t many carriers needed anymore. In the ’90s, the Sunday jobs section was four sections big. Today, the Star Tribune’s is four-pages long, and there are no ads in there for newspaper carriers. In a good economy, newspapers have a difficult time recruiting people for a difficult job. In a bad economy, they don’t.

    The hardest-working person in the news business, is the person who brings you the newspaper.

    • http://erikhare.wordpress.com/ Erik Hare

      Very true. I had a bike route for the afternoon paper when I was a kid (does this make me sound old?) and in order to make decent money I worked my way up to a route that took 2 hours after school, every day. I wasn’t trying to support a family on it.

      People who make a living off of this, or a good hunk of one, are indeed the hardest working people I know of.

    • Bonnie

      Glad you wrote this. My sunday strib did have a holiday card on top, paper parked right smack dab in front of the door. ( other weeks it sometimes wanders a few feet away…)

      I probably send a tip every other year, just due to disorganization, I’ll be sure to do it this year. I helped deliver sunday papers when I was a kid, it was a ton of work and some of the customers were ungrateful fussbudgets. Also helped deliver a weekly. It was cold and dark in the winter, there were dogs, my brother got bit one time and another time I had to rescue him from a large dog chained to the front steps…and he used to have to go door to door to collect.

      I have reduced delivery to just the Sunday…I feel guilty but just don’t have time to read it weekdays.

    • Paul

      I salute you strong and noble carriers! But I must point out that this job used to be done by 12-16 old kids, on foot and on bikes for even less pay, and they had to go around and collect as well.

    • Bob Collins

      //But I must point out that this job used to be done by 12-16 old kids

      Usually in the afternoons and usually only in their own neighborhoods.

      When I was a kid, I wanted a paper route in the worst way. But you could never get one. Each kid would sell their route to another kid in my city. You had to know the right people.

      (Suddenly, I’m thinking of the Leave It to Beaver episode when he picked up a newspaper route with Whitey).

      By the way, during several foot-or-more-snowstorms, I delivered on X-country skiis. The kid on a bike has nothing on me. (g)

    • Mark Gisleson

      One of the best posts you’ve ever written. There is much that is admirable about the work that carriers do, and it contrasts dramatically with the low nature of their “employers.”

      The Orange County Register just paid out $22 million to newspaper carriers in a record settlement, but only after the carriers agreed to the stipulation that they had been “independent contractors.” I’m sure the carriers would have agreed to a stipulation that they were all cross-dressers if that was what it took to get their money.

      Years ago I did some work for a state employee who worked with tax collections. He told me that there were virtually no independent contractors in the state of Minnesota who were not employees according to state law, but that the state chose to turn a blind eye to these illegal arrangements as to do otherwise would have been to declare war on our daily newspapers.

      As a carrier you had no choice as to when you picked up the newspapers, how you assembled them, or your delivery deadline. You were an employee, plain and simple. Your employer, however, treated you poorly.

      When apartment dwellers had their newspapers stolen by neighbors, the employer docked your pay without due process or proof. When the presses broke down and the newspapers were late, you still got docked for late deliveries. When sidewalks were ice-covered it was up to you to deliver that newspaper, and any injuries in the course of making a delivery were your problem, not your employers.

      Your employer also never asked you if you were using your young children to assist with deliveries in violation of state laws concerning child labor. Yet they frequently praise foreign-born carriers for successfully managing huge routes (taking care to never ask how they manage to accomplish this impossible feat).

      Like an out of work welder delivering pizzas, you surely did the math repeatedly in an effort to figure out if your compensation was really paying for the wear and tear on your vehicle.

      Later, after all the newspapers have gone digital and the statute of limitations has expired, I’m sure publishers will begin to acknowledge the illegality of their scam, but until then delivering newspapers is still one of the most exploitative employer-employee scandals of our time.

    • http://www.joannao.blogspot.com Joanna

      And I assume carriers are also expected to provide their own transportation:little red wagon/ feet/bike/skis!/car, at their own expense.

    • Bob Collins

      It REALLY takes a toll on cars. Especially on Sunday. I’ve seen people with the their tires scraping their wheel wells leaving the depot. Tough going on transmissions. I stopped doing it when gas hit $1.85 and wondered all this year how it’s anything but a break-even operation for people now.

      You can deduct a lot of expenses on 6taxes but nowhere near a point where it much matters.

      Mark is absolutely right about the independent contractor situation, too. Dead-on right. Like he was working-right-next-to-me right.

    • Mark Gisleson

      Bob, I had a client who delivered newspapers. He was a retiree supplementing his income and he told me plenty. He was a former newspaper man and understood the situation very well. His insights resulted in a City Pages story about carriers that I didn’t think went nearly far enough.

      I know that the gent who ran the PiPress’s circ department was stolen by the Strib who then allowed him to put the screws to the rest of the carriers in town. I think the CP story made them nervous because the Strib subsequently outsourced their delivery management to an outside company, one that’s been somewhat less than compliant with state workers comp laws.

      I’ve never understood why the local TV stations have refused to investigate this matter. It’s such an obvious investigative sweeps week story that you have to wonder if the news media don’t watch each others backs in these matters.

    • Bob Collins

      Maybe the TV stations don’t know that the guy whose name was at the bottom of the memos that would occasionally come to carriers was — wait for it….

      Pawlenty.

      It’s a relative. A brother or a cousin, I can’t remember which.

      It actually is a heck of a story. But reporters would have to get up at 2 a.m. to cover it. Not bloody likely.

      When he first came into town, Par Ridder came out in the middle of the night once to give the carriers a pep talk. I didn’t stay for it. I had stuff to do. The other sneaky thing newspaper did to carriers was when they raised the delivery price they’d always include a note saying a portion of the increase was going to the carrier. If it was, say, a dime, the carrier got a half-cent.

      You know those Thanksgiving papers the size of the Sunday paper. They took the same effort to put together and deliver as the Sunday paper. The newspaper made a fortune with them. But, at least in the case of the PiPress, they paid the carrier the same as a Monday-Saturday delivery. A few years ago — when I was still doing it — the carriers revolted, and the paper agreed to share more of the wealth, but not as much as Sunday, as I recall.

      When I first started, if you asked for a replacement section — like maybe if the TV section was missing (a real no-no for customers), the Pioneer Press would charge you for a full paper even though the carrier didn’t do anything wrong. They stopped that in the mid-’90s.

      I admit that I, personally, was treated well by the supervisors who were in the middle of their own battles with the paper. But that’s only because I was the best carrier in the East Metro. “You’re a legend downtown,” one exec from downtown said to me one day.

      “I’m a legend in many parts of the city,” I said to her. “That’s not usually a good thing.”

      Delivering newspapers, strangely, was on my bucket list. As was driving a taxi. Both are checked off. Still up is long-haul trucker. But I looked at how much it costs to learn how to do that. Almost $4,000. I need to write a new list.

    • Mark Gisleson

      And it’s important to remember that right up until recently these newspapers’ shareholders fired publishers who only brought in an 18% profit.

      I can help you out with the trucking. Instead of long haul, just haul grain from a farm to the elevator during the next harvest season. Heavily loaded grain trucks on narrow gravel roads are almost as much fun as driving the ice road up north.

      If you want it to be an authentic truck driving experience, I could even round up some truckers little helpers for you. Also there’s no law that says you can’t relieve yourself in the cab on a short haul, just like the long haul truckers do.

    • Marina

      Thank you SO much for posting this blog. I was one of those families you wrote of…well actually, I was part of a couple families in my neighborhood that did it together. Soccer camp doesn’t pay for itself. So, off and on for about 10 years I would help my and other families deliver the paper. A few things you forgot to mention (just because I think these workers deserve as much credit as humanly possible):

      *Remember the big metal transporters used to move the papers from the depot to your vehicle that were awkward, not always available, and papers would fall constantly? I was probably 90 lbs and had to push those.

      *There are the “special” requests such as “please leave inside screen door hanging on handle”…I was happy to do it for a senior citizen, but you KNOW a majority of them were just lazy. And then the Sunday paper would never fit and you would get the standard $3 complaint.

      *Stupid timed sprinkler systems.

      *The overprotective dog that barks every single morning.

      There a plenty more, but I’m getting crabby reminiscing over my most underappreciated occupation.

      Oh! Save your newspapaer bags and binders and when you have a bunch, leave them on your stoop!!! They can reuse them!!

    • JohnnyZoom

      Wonderful, wonderful post.

      -A former 12-16 year old afternoon deliverer

    • D Koski

      I did the weekend Strib route for a winter about 6 years ago. Terrible hours, wear and tear on the vehicle and dangerous, icy sidewalks. I could never get over the idea of a whole family up at 1:00 am with little children stuffing papers in the cold warehouse when they should be home sleeping. The rusty conversion van idling outside with the infant crying was distressing. Except for taking away someone’s livelihood, I would love to see an expose.

    • Bob Collins

      //Remember the big metal transporters used to move the papers from the depot to your vehicle that were awkward, not always available, and papers would fall constantly? I was probably 90 lbs and had to push those.

      Before there were those transporters, Marina, we had big industrial sized wastebaskets to put the papers in. There’d be fights because some people — especially on a Sunday — would grab 5 or 6 of them so they could take the papers out to the car all at once, while others were left to schlep 400 papers out by the armload.

      //There are the “special” requests such as “please leave inside screen door hanging on handle”

      Right. And then the screen door would be locked, so you’d leave it on the step. They’d call to complain. The PiPress would take $1 from you.

      //Stupid timed sprinkler systems.

      A refreshing way to wake up in the morning. Also those motion detector floodlights you don’t expect… and neither do your retinas.

      //The overprotective dog that barks every single morning.

      Truth be told, I often tried to get that critter barking (inside the house)just to remind the people trying to sleep that someone outside wasn’t.

      Great memories!

    • Bonnie

      by the way, I DID mail a card and tip check to my carrier today!

    • Jon Gordon

      I delivered the Strib for about 3 months in the late 1990s. I did not have the strength to hang in there like you, Bob. The only fond memory I have is getting creeped out by Art Bell on the car radio in the pre-dawn hours of Falcon Heights and Roseville. Something about being alone in the dark, walking up to strange unlit houses, and listening to Bell really pushed my fear buttons.

      As a young boy I delivered the Watertown Public Opinion. It was my first job. I remember the pain of the paper bag cutting into my shoulder; delivering papers in blizzards; and being forced to go door-to-door to collect money for the paper. Some of the people I had to demand money from on behalf of the newspaper were downright scary. Looking back on it, I’m dumbfounded such exploitation was allowed to happen. But it did allow me to buy my first consmer product with my own earnings — a skateboard. My first paycheck was $17. That was for a MONTH.